There are very few ways in which Smithery is like The Queen.
The only one worth mentioning is that we both have two birthdays.
Ten years ago today, on May 4th 2011, I resigned from my previous job as Chief Innovation Officer at the media agency PHD in London. I was going to start… well, something. Potentially called ‘Smith & Benkler’*, definitely around innovation.
I was 33 years old, and thought there was something fitting about resigning on Star Wars day – ‘May the 4th be with you’ etc etc. There is probably a long German word to describe the mix of pride and embarrassment I have about that now.
Anyway, I though I’d write two blog posts this year, for each of the birthdays .
The second one, at the beginning of August, will probably be longer, more interesting, and cover things I’ve learned in ten years of running Smithery.
This is just a short one, about resigning.
Given the general state of everything (*waves hand towards the window*), a fair few folk are no doubt wondering about what to do next, in order to make work work for them.
Which may well entail resigning from their current job.
So here are three pieces of advice I’d give anyone thinking about doing that. Of course, it’s only based on my own particular experience, so YMMV. Oh, and there’s a bonus piece of practical guidance too at the end.
If you’re thinking about resigning, think about these three things…
1. Describe the opportunity you see
I knew what I wanted to do based on the evidence in front of me. I’d become very interested in creating and embedding ideas with clients that started internally, worked through communities, then out externally.
This was based on the IPA Excellence Diploma Thesis I’d written, The Communis Manifesto, the abstract of which goes like this…
The brand communications which evolved in the mass media era are becoming more and more ineffective at changing peoples’ perceptions of companies and brands.The Communis Manifesto, 2008, John V Willshire
The connections people make and communities they form nowadays are increasingly where they source their information; people are influenced most by people and communities.
I believe that the future of brand communications lies in finding a way to become part of communities, and communicate with them in a way that is shared, participatory and reciprocal.
In this way companies can affect peoples’ perceptions of them, and make all of their brand communications more effective.
Starting that sort of work even now is hard, because you naturally need to connect silos in a business (Product, Marketing, HR, IT etc etc) that often seem to know each other without ever working together.
And eventually I reached the point that I was more interested in working on innovation projects that looked like this than anything the agency did.
Yes, I could point to the value created for clients in doing this, but not in a way that could persuade the agency business to invest in pursuing it further; it was too far outside the core business activities. So I left to pursue that initial idea.
Being able to describe an opportunity to do things differently, who it benefits, and why you can help people get there, is key.
I’m not suggesting you need to write a thesis to get there, but have a well-worked through perspective on something. If you’ve had the opportunity to test it, even better. It would even help you differentiate yourself if you wanted to apply for freelance roles in your existing industry; you offer something different.
But remember, it’s not even the thing you need to hold onto forever…
2. This is your next leap, not your last
So you can see the shape of an opportunity there, and why it’s not being done by others, but is it yours to grab? What happens if it goes wrong?
Well, the first thing to know is that even if you’re pursuing a new idea from the perspective you’ve identified above, it doesn’t preclude other types of work. By it’s very definition, if you’re proposing new ways of working, there won’t be many ready-made client tasks waiting there for you.
Think of the opportunity as a place to get to, with explorative paths along the way. They might well lead you to where you think you’re going. Or they might take you somewhere else which is equally or even more interesting for you.
But at the end of the day, you can always get another job. I came at this from an innovation background, obviously, but as the years have past I think that doesn’t matter so much.
Trying to do something new in any field, even if you fail at it, makes you more employable and not less.
In the meantime, you need to find some willing collaborators who’ll pay you to help them experiment…
3. Have a client to get a client
This video was very popular ten years ago, as the excitement of early stage social networks took hold or everyone (and every budget)…
I was thinking about it again when writing this post. It takes a brave client to be the first person who’ll stand up and dance with the weirdo. But as soon as someone’s up, it becomes easier for anyone (and eventually everyone) to join in.
If you have a client when you start, it makes it much easier to get a second one.
Because as you talk to new prospects who get in touch, you can describe some other work you’re doing (or about to do), as a tangible demonstration of what you’re trying to do for them.
You have the strategic opportunity you’ve defined in the first instance, and proof that there’s something in this as someone else is dancing with you. So if at all possible, before you resign, get a first client to work on.
Now, ideally it shouldn’t be anyone your employer works with currently; although possible, it’s probably a whole heap of trouble you don’t need.
There may be alternatives unique to your own circumstances. For me, there was another company trying to recruit me to be their innovation lead; I asked about what job they were hiring me to solve, and whether they’d be interested in me working as an independent consultant instead.
Instead, you could think about people you’ve worked with before but have moved on, peers you respect in other places, or anyone you have a mutual connection with who might introduce you.
So there you go, three tips worth thinking about as the world around you changes. Comments are open below, if others want to offer their advice too. And I promise I’ll write that longer ‘what I’ve learned’ post when our second birthday comes around.
And as promised…
That final PRACTICAL advice…
When I resigned to start Smithery, we had one eighteen month-old child, and Helen hadn’t gone back to her previous role after maternity leave. Everything we had was to come through Smithery.
The smartest thing I think we did was to move into our first house we’d ever owned, the month before I resigned, with a five-year fixed rate mortgage.
It meant that whilst starting up your own business, there wasn’t a bank asking for three-years worth of accounts at the end of a two-year mortgage deal.
However you do it, make your monthly outgoings as predictable as possible for as long as you can.
*That, my friends, is another story. But interestingly, the featured image for the post is the last picture I have in my iCloud folders from the day before I resigned, which will give you a small hint…